- The Washington Times - Friday, February 3, 2012

Hockey is life in Montreal. When the Canadiens are playing well, it might be the best hockey city in the world. But when things get bad, the scrutiny can be suffocating and bilingual.

That’s been this season for Les Habitants, “Le Bleu, Blanc et Rouge” — the last-place Canadiens.

“I’m pretty happy to be gone from there, from all the circus. Obviously it’s No. 1 sport in Montreal or Quebec and everybody’s so proud,” Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jaroslav Spacek said. “If the team doesn’t do well, like this year, it’s always pretty bad. I think the guys [are] hiding right now. They don’t want to even go out and eat or stuff like that. I think it’s a big mess.”

Big mess might as well be Montreal’s 2011-12 catchphrase, as injuries and underachievement have taken a playoff contender and made it an uphill climb to reach the playoffs.

Washington Capitals defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who played four years with the Canadiens, doesn’t think the season is lost.

“They have great goaltending, and they still have a chance make the playoffs. I’m a little bit, not upset, but it’s like weird. They were such a good team last year and this year they’re struggling,” Hamrlik said. “It’s not easy games, and they still have a chance.”

It would take a heroic run by goaltender Carey Price and company to even get close. With 47 points (19-23-9 record), they’re in a three-way tie for last place in the Eastern Conference and 11 points out of a playoff spot.

Spacek, traded from Montreal to Carolina in December, and Caps forward Jeff Halpern, who spent last season with the Habs, agreed that the problems started with Andrei Markov’s knee injury. Markov, a big-minute, big-money defenseman, played just seven games last season and none this season.

“You lose a guy like that and that’s pretty difficult to overcome,” Halpern said. “They brought in a couple guys that have done a good job, but I think to lose a guy that plays 25 minutes like that … beyond that I don’t know it’s a good team.”

The results say otherwise. Scott Gomez ($7.5 million salary) has not scored a goal in almost a full calendar year, the power play has struggled and the defense has faltered in front of Price, an All-Star.

Assistant coach Perry Pearn was fired hours before a game, coach Jacques Martin the day of a game and Mike Cammalleri was traded during a game. Add to that a controversy over interim coach Randy Cunneyworth being hired as the Habs’ first bench boss to not speak French in 40 years. 

“I think it’s too many things. We didn’t start the season pretty well,” Spacek said. “We didn’t score too many goals and start to trade the players, change the coach, all the stuff like that. All that crap about the French-speaking coach — that doesn’t really help if you don’t win the games. I think the guys now are kind of down. They need to win one, two, three games to get it and would change. I think it’s a great group of guys out there, but it doesn’t really work right now for them.”

Halpern said even rough patches last season showed how rough it can be for the Canadiens when their game goes off the rails.

“Things don’t go unnoticed, for sure,” Halpern said. But I think that’s what makes it fun there is how much the people care about the game. Nothing goes by unnoticed — if it’s poor play; wins and losses are probably the biggest thing.”

In a season full of losses, not a lot of the Canadiens’ struggles are going unnoticed. And that’s not fun in any language.

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